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Conflict resolution in teams - LBS Professor Randall S. Peterson
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Conflict resolution in teams - LBS Professor Randall S. Peterson


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Conflict is inevitable in any team, organisation or family, but the secret to healthy teams, …

Conflict is inevitable in any team, organisation or family, but the secret to healthy teams,
organisations and families is in how we manage that conflict. Recent research suggests
not only that conflict is something that healthy groups experience, but actually that it is
essential to healthy group functioning. This presentation from London Business School Professor Peterson provided both a framework for understanding how to resolve conflict effectively, and a number of specific and practical tips for managing conflicts in your team.

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  • 1. Conflict resolution in teams Randall S. Peterson Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Deputy Dean (Faculty)© Copyright 2012 London Business School
  • 2. Conflict resolution in teams Conflict is inevitable in any team, organisation or family, but the secret to healthy teams, organisations and families is in how we manage that conflict. Recent research suggests not only that conflict is something that healthy groups experience, but actually that it is essential to healthy group functioning. Groups that actively manage conflict in a way that focuses on the good of the group as a whole are likely to experience improved decision making while leaving everyone’s dignity intact, and allowing the group to move forward. The session provided both a framework for understanding how to resolve conflict effectively, and a number of specific and practical tips for managing conflicts in your team.1
  • 3. Conflict resolution Conflict is inevitable in any team, organisation or family. But what do we really know about how and why conflict works? Randall Petersons research reveals the reality.2
  • 4. You’re a psychologist by training, what got youinterested in conflict resolution?When I was a student at the University of Minnesota, I was the student representative to the Board ofRegents, the board which oversees the university. This was a who’s who of accomplished people in thestate of Minnesota and, yet, it was not a terribly functional group. It amazed me how a group ofaccomplished people can come together and not do what you’d hoped them to do.A lot of it had to do with their inability to manage conflict and that got me really interested in groups andin leadership in groups and managing conflict.3
  • 5. What has your most recent research in this arealooked at?I’ve been looking at a variety of types of groups and there are processes that consistently work andsome that don’t.Processes which work include collaborative problem solving – everybody has their point of view andthey are able to discuss it. In a small group, in particular, what doesn’t work is something like majorityrule. This makes for a very unhappy minority in a group. They have nothing invested in success and oftenhave something invested in failure. Particularly for a group under the size of ten people, majority rule isa bad way of going about business. In such groups, the process I would recommend is qualifiedconsensus where everyone has to say they can live with the outcome. It doesn’t mean they think it’s thebest. It just means they can live with it. And that is enough to get people committed to the final decisionbecause they, at least, signed on saying it wasn’t a bad idea.Now, if you can’t reach qualified consensus and the group really is deadlocked you’re better off with theleader making the decision. What you don’t want is to turn it over to a vote and it’s five against three.4
  • 6. Can you explain? The example I always use is the United Kingdom where there is so much energy – and potential conflict – around each national identity. The worst mistake a Prime Minister can make is to attack the identity of any one of the national identities – English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish. What they need to do is emphasise the overall identity of being British for people to see that they all have something at stake in working together on some things.5
  • 7. And presumably that works in multinational corporations as well? It works very well at any level of analysis. Look at what happens in mergers. In a corporate merger the tendency is to try to squash the old identities of the merged companies. This is a big mistake. Studies show that if the leadership focuses on the overarching new merged identity, and doesn’t try to kill the other old identities, then there is a much better chance of a successful merger.6
  • 8. But, aren’t there huge cultural differences in how we treat and resolve conflict? There are, of course, behavioural differences, but the underlying principles work remarkably well across cultures.7
  • 9. And can your insights apply to personal relationshipconflict resolution as well as in corporations or elsewhere?One of my big scholarly inspirations was a leading researcher into interpersonal relationships. One of the things that I learned is thatevery relationship has a serial argument based on personal and deep-seated values. It is a serial argument because it’s notresolvable; there are what we call backstop values. So, initial conversations over such differences tend to be painful because bothparties get to a point where you are what you are and can’t explain why.The best way, in any relationship, to deal with these unresolvable arguments in the longer term is if both parties implicitly agree neverto discuss the topic. You realise that either you value the relationship enough that you’re not going to do this again or you want out.In romantic relationships, the serial argument is oftentimes over whether or not to have children. Wanting children is typically not astraightforward nor easy to explain desire – it is a backstop or basic value. A couple may be perfectly suited to living with one another,and they may be very happy for many years not discussing children, but at some point the biological clock requires an answer. At thatstage one person in the partnership needs to either change their desire for children, or get out of the relationship. There are parallelsto this in a lot of work relationships. Think of entrepreneurs who have to decide how much control and equity to give to investors.Often people have very firm views about this. One partner may want to sell out, the other may not. They can run a business together,but what happens when one wants to sell-up?8
  • 10. Where is your research going next?If you think about classic group development models – such as Bruce Tuckman’s model of forming, storming,norming and performing – one stage logically leads to the next. I think there is a better way of thinking abouthow groups develop and that is about conflict and a set of conflicts some of which are embedded in thecircumstance of the group and others which emerge from the individuals within the group.For example, I have been working with a couple of colleagues looking at crossorganisational teams. Think ofwhen Ford wanted to build a hybrid car. It had zero battery technology so, first, it needed to find a partner.Ford found a partner in Japan. Then you have the situation where the team answers to two masters, both ofwhom have a stake in it. There’s always a conflict between which organisation is more powerful among thegroup members.Such conflict is never fully resolvable so you have to actively manage ongoing conflict. What drives groupsforward is a conflict resolution oriented strategy. Most successful groups are actually those that develop bytrying to figure out their ability to manage conflict best. So group development is about conflict rather than alogical sequence. Conflict is the fundamental thing that drives change in a group.9
  • 11. So is conflict a kind of organisational oil? Well, without it we’d all be standing still.10
  • 12. Thinking about the groups in an organisation, oftenthe most dysfunctional group is actually the boardbecause sometimes they don’t even see themselvesas a group.No, often they don’t. Board members see themselves as individuals. It’s agroup of individuals who are thrown together who ostensibly have a sharedidentity or agenda, but in reality it rarely works that way. The last thing you’dwant to do is somehow suppress those identities in any way. Yet on the otherhand you have to bring them together. The magic lies in creating a sharedidentity and agenda that they all see, acknowledge, know and can activelysupport.11
  • 13. And what’s the role of academics and business schools in achieving this? One goes to a business school because you want to engage with and try to change the world, not sit in an Ivory Tower. To me that’s what business schools should be about. I didn’t move from a psychology department to a business school to just publish papers! I would like my research to have an impact on boards and top management teams.12
  • 14. Crocodile Construction & Associates Take-Away Messages13
  • 15. 1 Conflict is an inevitable and natural part of life – the secret is in learning how to manage different types of conflict in different ways. • Trust is the key variable to assess – where you have trust you can be more blunt and direct in how you express conflict; where there is a lack of trust people are inclined to interpret most things in the worst possible light. • The ideal decision making process for managing conflict is qualified consensus (i.e., where everyone can “live with” the decision), but that takes time so you may need to discuss the issue and have the leader decide. Try not to resort to majority rule decision making in a small group.14
  • 16. 2 Conflicts come from three broad sources of difference: • Interests – this leads to a distributive situation where one wins and the other loses. • Information or experience – this often leads to the possibility of an integrative situation where everyone can win, but only if the right information is shared. • Values – these are generally the most difficult differences to accommodate and often require a degree of complexity and compromise to resolve.15
  • 17. 3 There are three broad types of conflict: • Task conflict or debate (generally want a moderate amount). • Relationship conflict or negative affect, “I hate you” (generally want to avoid it). • Process conflict (want some at the beginning and less later).16
  • 18. 4 There are 10 basic values that motivate human behaviour (i.e., and create conflict) cross- culturally: • Tradition • Hedonism or Pleasure • Conformity • Mental Stimulation • Security • Self-Direction or Autonomy • Power • Universalism • Achievement • Benevolence Toward Others17
  • 19. Group Members Type of Ethical Violation (personal ethical violation) Coercive Use of Taking Advantage Violation of Law Power for Personal Gain Abigail (corruption to help a friend) 5 (least) 2 5 (least) Gregory (corruption for personal 3 3 2 gain and lack of reciprocity) Ivan (breaking personal promise) 2 5 (least) 1 (most) Tony (blackmail) 1 (most) 4 4 Sharon (arson for personal 4 1 (most) 3 pleasure)18
  • 20. Additional Reading Peterson, Randall S. (2001). Managing conflict in your team. London Business School Alumni News. Eisenhardt, Kathleen M., Kahwajy, J. L., & Bourgeois, L. J. III (1997). Conflict and strategic choice: How top management teams disagree. California Management Review, 39(2), 42-62. Simons, Tony & Peterson, Randall S. (2006). When to let them duke it out. Harvard Business Review. Schwartz, Shalom H. (1992). Universals in the content and structure of values: Theoretical advances and empirical tests in 20 countries. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 25, 1-65.19